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  Impact of the new Supreme Court decisions on Mumia
Comment on the Supreme Court's Decision in Williams I and II, Monday, April 24, 2000
by C. Clark Kissinger (cck1@earthlink.net)
deutsche übersetzung

On April 18, 2000, the United States Supreme Court issued two decisions concerning the new habeas corpus statute,. known as the AEDPA, signed into law in 1996. Both decisions affect Mumia's case, now pending before U.S. District Court Judge Yohn.

The more important opinion deals with whether or not the new law limits or restricts the authority of federal judges, such as Judge Yohn, to review and overturn a state-court conviction.

By a vote of 5 to 4 the conservative majority, led by Justice O'Connor and including Rhenquist. Kennedy, Scalia and Thomas, endorsed Congress's action in placing "a new restriction" and "a new constraint on the power of a federal habeas court to giant a state prisoner's application for a writ of habeas corpus...."

That new restriction limits the authority of federal judges to order new trials where the petitioner's constitutional rights were concededly violated. Now, in order to get a new trial, Mumia must demonstrate not only that the state court's judges were incorrect or wrong - but that their action was more - that it was "unreasonable." In other words Judge Yohn is authorized to deny Mumia a new trial even if the Pennsylvania state courts acted incorrectly - just so long as their error was not "unreasonable."

But when is an incorrect decision by a state court "unreasonable"- as opposed to merely incorrect? This, the court did not say. That is why, in part, the 4 justices in the minority (Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer) decried this word game and insisted that the authority of federal judges should not be diminished by the new law and that if state judges decided constitutional issues incorrectly then federal judges should have the time honored, unfettered right to conduct an independent review and order a new trial.

So where does this leave Mumia's case? Without any guidelines, Judge Yohn appears to be free to call any of the decisions by the Pennsylvania Courts on federal constitutional issues "incorrect" and deny relief - or label them "unreasonable" and order a new trial.

Does this new decision give any hint as to whether - given the facts in Mumia's case - it's going to be one way or the other? Not really. However, it is worthwhile to note that in that case the Supreme Court reversed the death sentence (Williams v. Taylor) on an issue that's identical to one of the issues raised in Mumia's case: the ineffectiveness of counsel during the penalty phase. And they did it by finding the decision of the highest court of Virginia to be unreasonable on facts less compelling than those in Mumia's case (with Rhenquist, Scalia and Thomas dissenting from that part of the decision.)

An example of some of the issues that Judge Yohn will have to decide:

  1. Was it unreasonable for the state courts to deny Mumia a new trial when his lawyer admitted he did no investigation and talked to no witnesses?
  2. Was it unreasonable for the state courts to deny Mumia a new trial when 3 witnesses claimed they were harassed by the police into changing their account of what they observed and one admitted to testifying falsely?
  3. Was it unreasonable for the state courts to deny Mumia a new trial when the district attorney's office admitted to removing 10 qualified African-American jurors?
  4. Was it unreasonable for the state courts to deny Mumia a new trial when the one witness who reported that Mumia made no comments on the night he was alleged to have confessed was prevented from testifying by the false report that he was unavailable?
  5. Was it unreasonable for the state courts to deny Mumia a new hearing on sentencing when the district attorney introduced evidence of Mumia's political statements and associations 12 years earlier?

Or, were these errors about constitutional violations merely incorrect?

The second decision (also named Williams) upheld the right to an evidentiary hearing for a petitioner, like Mumia, who was precluded from introducing evidence by actions of the state court. However, in order to get such a hearing Mumia must demonstrate that Judge Sabo and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court prevented him from making a complete record on his claims. This did not change the existing framework of the law relating to evidentiary hearings and was fully briefed to Judge Yohn in our motion for an evidentiary hearing It is worth noting however, that in this Williams case, with abundant evidence supporting the defendant's conviction for a double murder and rape (with evidence linking the defendant to 4 other murders), the court granted a hearing denied by the state courts solely on the issue of whether or not the defendant received a fair trial an issue totally unrelated to the question of his guilt or innocence.

Solidaritätsbüro Mumia Abu Jamal
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